Ukrainian elections: What does Zelensky’s landslide victory mean?

Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who found fame in a TV series about a teacher who became President of Ukraine, has become President of Ukraine. In the second round of the election on 21 April, Zelensky beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a landslide victory of more than 73% of votes – even more votes than his character in the TV drama.

After a campaign that almost completely avoided detailed policy commitments, Ukrainians are now left wondering what their new President will do.

Did life imitate art?

Servant of the people was a hit TV show where a teacher is catapulted to political power after venting his anger about corruption in a video that went viral. His party has adopted the same name as the show.

Although the Zelensky campaign underlined Poroshenko’s oligarch status, he is closely connected to another oligarch. The TV channel that aired the show is owned by one of Ukraine’s richest men, Ihor Kolomoisky, and the company provided security and logistical support for the campaign. Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer served as Zelensky’s legal counsel and a top campaign adviser.

The actor has denied being influenced by Kolomoisky, but Petro Poroshenko was quick to describe the incumbent as Kolomoisky’s “puppet”. Kolomoisky is exiled from Ukraine after a clash with the state that saw his bank, the largest in Ukraine, nationalised.

Some analysts argue that any presidential candidate would need a TV channel onside – Poroshenko has his own station.

What has Zelensky offered?

Avoiding tough questions and specific pronouncements allowed Zelensky to appeal to a wide range of voters. With 73% in favour, this tactic surely worked. Despite the vagueness, Zelensky did give some general pointers on policy, promising:

  • an anti-corruption blitz, including transparent defence procurement
  • direct democracy and a new law on referendums
  • a tax amnesty
  • tougher rules for oligarchs
  • better public services
  • less invasive government policies
  • continued work with the IMF
  • support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration
  • talks with Russia on ending the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Will he be able to deliver?

On 23 April, Zelensky staffers announced an end to MPs’ immunity from prosecution in a bill to be decided by the Parliament on 25 April. But that highlights one of the new President’s difficulties: Ukraine’s hybrid parliamentary/presidential system means that the President must get the Parliament’s support for this. At present he has no faction in the Parliament, although many MPs will go over to his side after such a stunning victory. Putting together a presidential coalition could lead to the sort of ‘horse trading’ that Zelensky campaigned against. Commentators suggest Zelensky might call a snap election, in the hope of forming a new majority supporting Zelensky. His new party is currently ahead in the polls.

Zelensky’s views on Russia

It’s not clear how pro-Russian the new President is. What is obvious is that he is not as anti-Kremlin as Poroshenko. Zelensky offered a balance between the West and Russia and steered largely clear of identity politics during the campaign. His oligarch backer, Kolomoiski created a militia to fight Russia-backed separatists in 2014, so he doesn’t look particularly pro-Russian. On the other hand, Zelensky, whose first language is Russian, polled particularly well in Russian-speaking areas. About a third of Ukrainians consider Russian to be their first language.

Poroshenko’s tone became increasingly Ukrainian-nationalist as the campaign wore on. One of his slogans was “Army! Language! Faith!”, the language being Ukrainian rather than Russian, and posters showed him confronting Russian President Putin rather than his opponents in Ukraine. Poroshenko has sponsored legislation strongly promoting the Ukrainian language and downgrading Russian.

After the election, Russia announced it would facilitate Russian nationality for Ukrainians living in the Donbas areas which are currently under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Far from being evidence that Zelensky was Moscow’s man, the move was widely seen as a challenge to the new Ukrainian President.

What has the reaction been?

Western diplomats are reportedly sceptical of Zelensky. Although Poroshenko presented himself as the anti-Putin candidate, the Kremlin did not send a message of congratulation, which it did to US President Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt congratulated Zelensky and looked forward to working with him in support of Ukrainian territorial integrity. Hunt referred to the UK’s growing cooperation with Ukraine on defence and security.

EU Commission and Council Presidents, respectively, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, congratulated Zelensky and offered support for the continuation of action to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption, maintain financial stability and reform the energy sector – all significant in Ukraine’s trade relationship with the EU.

But perhaps most significant was the reaction of the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Europe-wide human rights organisation. International observers from the OSCE said that although discussion of the issues was inadequate, the election was competitive and held with respect for fundamental freedoms. While both candidates ran populist campaigns that steered clear of detail, it was not the campaign that focused on the external threat and nationalist politics that prevailed, rather, Zelensky’s, which focused more on the domestic situation. Poroshenko conceded defeat and power should be transferred peacefully. Several analysts view these as positive developments.

Further reading


About the author: Ben Smith is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.